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Worried About a Colleague?

Delicate Conversations: Is It Depression?

By Mary Ellen Sullivan

It may be among the toughest conversations you ever have to initiate. But when you think a colleague is in trouble it is worse, for both your friend and the firm, to avoid the issue. We’ve asked professionals in the know about how to approach a colleague and provide support when these delicate issues arise.

If Depression Has Become a Problem

“The legal profession has twice the rate of depression than other occupations,” says Dan Lukasik, “and its effects include lack of productivity, the loss of good people, disability and even suicide. It is in everyone’s best interest to address the problem constructively so that the person gets help and can remain productive.”

Lukasik is managing partner of Bernhardi Lukasik PLLC in Buffalo, New York, and founder of the website Lawyers with Depression. His best advice is to educate yourself before talking with your colleague. Learn the signs—the two most common involve a lack of ability to feel pleasure and persistent sadness that fails to resolve. Among the websites he recommends are the Depression and Bipolar Support Alliance  and the National Alliance for the Mentally Ill, as well as the book I Don’t Want to Talk About It: Overcoming the Secret Legacy of Male Depression by Terrence Real.

Lukasik, who has had firsthand experience with depression and now mentors other lawyers across the country who’re dealing with it, offers a thoughtful list of dos and don’ts on taking those first steps toward helping a colleague.

  • Do initiate the conversation away from workplace. “Take them out for lunch or dinner so they know that it is not about work and that you are dealing with something on a personal level,” he says.
  • Don’t tell someone to just “get your act together” or to “take a vacation.” Both are counterproductive. If they could get their act together, they would. And if they took a vacation, because depression is so internal, they would just be depressed on vacation.
  • Do suggest they seek help, but a gentle way is to recommend they see the family doctor (not a psychiatrist) to rule out physical issues.
  • Don’t confront the colleague with more than one person, otherwise they will feel ganged up on and defensive.
  • Do offer concrete help. “A depressed person is often isolated and lacking in energy and motivation,” Lukasik explains. “Instead of telling them to call you whenever they need to talk, you might want to suggest that the two of you meet every Wednesday morning for coffee and conversation. Or if you suggest a support group, offer to drive them there and back. This shows them that there is someone in their corner fighting for them.”
  • Don’t go into the default lawyer mode of talking rather than listening. “I’ve found that typically lawyers don’t listen well,” says Lukasik. “On this occasion, you need to really hear what they are saying.”
  • Do walk your talk. If you suggest a book, read it first. This gives you more credibility and heads off any objections they may raise.
  • Do give them a choice. “Ultimately, getting help is their responsibility,” says Lukasik. “What you can say, however, is ‘I encourage you to get help now, but it is your choice. Just know that doing nothing is not realistic, and the longer you wait, the stakes get higher, and we’d like you to remain at our firm.’”
  • Do offer workplace accommodations. “If the person cannot take time off but is focused on healing, do what you can to give them the space they need. You could, for example, temporarily give them more flexible hours, a shorter workweek or a different caseload. Typically, depressed people feel lost. These practical steps help chip away at their sense of helplessness.”
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Categories: Attorney Work-Life Balance, Daily Dispatch, Law Firm People Management, Lawyer Health
Originally published September 24, 2012
Last updated November 20, 2017
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Mary Ellen Sullivan Mary Ellen Sullivan

A Chicago-based freelance writer, traveler and the author of “On the Wings of the Hummingbird,” a blog about joy, Mary Ellen Sullivan wrote about the arts, music, travel and women’s issues, with a specialty in health care, for more than 30 years. She was the author of the best-selling book “Cows on Parade in Chicago,” as well as several travel guides. Mary Ellen passed away in March 2016. You can read about her extraordinary life here.

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